Support Biking by Opposing BRT

While the publisher of Cyclelicious enthusiastically supports Bus Rapid Transit plans in the Santa Clara Valley, San Jose bike advocate Peter Smith is equally ardent in his opposition to BRT. When I asked Peter for details on why he opposes BRT, he graciously agreed to write up this provocative guest blog post.



Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) presents the most serious threat to the growth of cycling in the world today.

BRT has three characteristics that engender its ability to hinder cycling:

  1. the propensity to swallow up precious road width that should be used for protected bike lanes,
  2. often runs in curbside lanes, effectively preventing cycling on a crucial corridor, and
  3. creates a harsh, dystopian landscape that is not pleasant to cycle through.


Cycling advocates should concentrate not on making cycling conditions better for existing cyclists, but on creating conditions that will allow everyone to bike.

Public transit advocates should focus more on how to cure the problem of transit dependence and less on just trying to alleviate some of the worst symptoms of transit dependence.

It is the author’s belief that cycling advocates should oppose BRT in all cases. This is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good — this is avoiding doing a deal with the devil.

This post focuses on the effects of BRT on cycling.

Protected bike lanes, direct routes required

Protected bike lanes

Protected bike lanes are required to allow everyone to bike. Most people cite ‘fear of cars’ — known as ‘perception of risk’ in cycling studies — as the primary reason they do not bike.
Protected bike lanes have been proven to decrease this perception of risk, thus increasing the number of people who bike.



Protected bike lane, downtown San Jose, CA.


Direct routes

Cyclists also need to be able to travel directly, like everyone else. This is why cyclists must be able to travel on the most direct routes, which are often the routes which have been slated for BRT.

BRT Threat #1: No room for protected bike lanes

Most people are effectively banned from cycling on most roads not because they are legally barred from doing so, but because the cycling conditions on those roads are not tolerable.

Not even room for non-protected bike lanes

Exclusive Bus Lanes

To qualify as a BRT system according to leading BRT proponent, ITDP, a bus system must exhibit several key characteristics to a sufficient degree. Of the three most important (all equally important according to ITDP), one is called ‘Segregated right-of-way’ — i.e. buses need to have their own lane.

Dedicating a full lane in either direction to only buses has the effect of increasing the motor traffic pressure on remaining travel lanes. Car drivers resent having to face increased traffic pressure. This creates a veritable political impossibility for cycling advocates trying to get space for protected bike lanes.

Median Busway Alignment

One of the other two most important characteristics that must be exhibited by bus systems to qualify as BRT is ‘Busway alignment’ — that is, where are these exclusive bus lanes going to run — in the middle of the street, or in the curbside lane? The median-aligned busway, unlike the curbside busway alignment, requires a tremendous amount of road width — bus lanes + bus stations — this works to prevent the introduction of protected bike lanes on that road.

How willing will drivers be to give up space to bicycles now?

BRT Threat #2: Risk of possible prevention of all biking on road

The bus-only lanes can also run curbside — directly adjacent to the curb — this leaves no place to put a protected bike lane. Select Bus Service in New York City runs in the curbside lane like this. Bikes are effectively barred from the streets with SBS. Examples abound.

Curbside bus-only lanes: No place for bicycles  :-(

BRT Threat #3: Creation of a harsh, dystopian landscape

The term ‘busway’ — ‘bus’ + ‘highway’ — is often used with ‘BRT’. This makes sense, as BRT systems exhibit highway-like characteristics. Highways generate pollution and noise, and are very hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. Making roads more highway-like with the introduction of busways is the wrong thing to do if we want to increase walking and cycling rates.


Chengdu, China wants to introduce an elevated BRT line (like the one in Xiamen)


In the mockumentary, Radiant City, James Howard Kunstler said when sitting on a park bench next to a highway, “It’s an amazingly-brutal environment. … The assault on your neurology is really impressive, and you really have to be here to appreciate it.” We should not tolerate these types of environments. If we want more people to walk and bike, we must not tolerate these types of environments. Our roads need to be quieter, safer, more beautiful, more pleasant places to walk and bike.

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Sustainable street in Guangzhou, China? A wretched kind of “modernism” this!

Deal with the devil: The ‘bike lanes’ carrot

To overcome community opposition to a BRT plan, its proponents will offer various ‘carrots’ — new streetlights, improved streetscaping, beautification, “traffic calming,” a newly paved road, and, of course, bike lanes along at least part of the route.

Cycling advocates should not accept this deal with the devil. We can and will get real protected bike lanes, and the only way we will get those protected bike lanes is if there is road width available. If we take the ‘free’ bike lanes to accept these BRT projects, we will limit the amount of cycling on that major corridor to the ‘Enthused and Confident’ cyclist demographic — only about 7% of the population. This effectively ends any chance of cycling becoming a mainstream mode of transportation.


An IT professional now living downtown San Jose, Peter Smith spends his time working on what he believes to be the next great hope for humanity after bicycles — worker co-ops — and dreaming of the day it’s safe and comfortable for most everyone to take a leisurely ride down The Alameda for no particular reason at all.

In case you think Peter is tilting at windmills, you might have first seen Peter’s writing at his Google Maps Bike There site, in which he campaigned several years for Google to include a “Bike There” option that Google finally incorporated in 2010. You can find his other work at his Weebly site.

8 Comments

  • October 2, 2012 - 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Threat #4 – it might make taking the bus pleasant enough that people would choose it over cycling

  • October 2, 2012 - 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Unlike the rendering shown, much of the actual select bus service in Manhattan runs on streets with reasonably nice fully-protected bike lanes. It’s totally possible. Here is the best photo I could find in a minute or two of searching.

  • steve_a_dfw
    October 2, 2012 - 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Re second picture: spell D I V E R S I O N F A L L due to those nasty black and white things. Such equipment should be tested by inexperienced cyclists before deployment to verify those things aren’t worse than simply hitting a curb at a shallow angle.

  • October 2, 2012 - 5:46 pm | Permalink

    @mlcastle:disqus — SBS in Manhattan is not BRT according to BRT proponents:

    http://dc.streetsblog.org/2011/05/26/itdp-american-bus-rapid-transit-can-catch-up-to-the-rest-of-the-world/

    imo, that is part of the reason 1st and 2nd aves were able to get protected bike lanes along at least part of their routes. BRT proponents protested SBS vociferously. BRT puts a road in a straightjacket — protected bike lanes become ‘unpossible.’ SBS is generally seen in the transport world as a massive success, except for BRT proponents who tend to see it as a failure because it is not actually BRT. that’s an unfortunate component of BRT — proponents tend to prioritize the goal of implementing BRT above the actual goals of a street. BRT, not a livable street, becomes the Holy Grail.

    so, there are lots of things in this world that are ‘totally possible’ — but we have to decide what is ‘likely’ given our experience. do most cities have a cycling nut like JSK running their transportation department? no.

    the second link, to the proposed Jacksonville system, is what happens with BRT implementations when a city’s transportation manager is not a cycling nut.

    JSK was smart — she dressed a bike project in BRT clothing.

    in the Bay Area and most of the rest of the world, biking will continue to be given little to no consideration in the rechanneling of our roads — as is standard practice. The only difference this time is our roads will be rechanneled for buses — ostensibly.

    @steve_a_dfw:disqus not allowing people to bike every single day right now is, imo, an E M E R G E N C Y. even if the black and white protector things were not perfect, they would still be greatly contributing to individual and public health, economic independence/mobility, etc.

  • Peter Smith
    October 2, 2012 - 7:16 pm | Permalink

    @mike I see what u r saying now — my one statement in the blog post is obviously innacurate.

    More accurate statement/claim of mine: “Where there is no protected bike lane on SBS aves, biking is effectively prevented.”

  • Malcolm
    October 2, 2012 - 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I live and cycle in Guangzhou. The BRT pictured is on one road only, Tian He, a major east-west corridor, and it has been a big improvement. Traffic here is a mess. Right of way goes to the largest, so buses pull-out, pull-in, swerve, brake and go with impunity. The BRT has corralled the chaotic herd to the centre two lanes leaving only cars to worry about. They widened the sidewalk and created bike lanes there, fenced off from the road. I prefer the road because pedestrians here are even more unruly than vehicles, but at least on Tian He I only have smaller-vehicled idiots to worry about.

  • adam
    October 8, 2012 - 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Those totally Isolated bus lanes do look pretty unfriendly, but I disagree that BRT is always bad for cycling. In London they have dedicated but not separated bus lanes on the outside lanes of many main roads, and cyclists are allowed (encouraged) to ride in them. In most cases they serve as 12ft wide bike lanes when the buses aren’t there (most of the time.)

    Perhaps you should advocate against the specific design instead of the entire concept.

    I personally think that any transport alternative that breaks the auto-monopoly will encourage cycling.

    *one caveat on the London example. Once people begin cycling they warm to riding in the bus lanes, but many non-cyclists do see sharing the road with buses as a reason to not cycle. In practice this seems to not matter so much as the bus lanes have helped cycling reach a critical mass where cycling is nearly mandatory in most hip circles.

  • October 9, 2012 - 9:00 pm | Permalink

    thanks @348bd87797eabf6de811680c385be411:disqus and @adam,

    I read about the Guangzhou and Hangzhou BRT systems, and there are a couple of small areas where they do seem to allow bikes to ride, but as best i can tell it appears to be an exception to the rule — the rule being a massively-wide corridor completely dominated by massive of motorized buses and cars. These streets will never be welcome to more than the heartiest and/or most desparate cyclists. Please tell me if you see this video in a different light:

    http://www.streetfilms.org/guangzhou-china-brt/

    And that is the primary objective of BRT, in my opinion — make cycling impossible for most people, because cycling presents the greatest threat to the automobile today.

    The same reasoning applied to the bike/bus lanes in London, Paris, etc. It is, in my opinion, on its face, completely insane to try to have bikes share the same lanes with buses. But it hardly matters what I say — just look at the evidence — how many people are riding bikes in Paris and London? And this is with bike sharing.

    To be fair, neither London nor Paris have really done full BRT implementations like BRT people demand they do – and that’s good – at least those few intrepid people can ride in at least some of the bus lanes, but the idea that we would lump bikes together with buses instead of buses with cars is clearly insane.

    Even if you didn’t care about allowing people the dignity and economic opportunity and quality of life afforded by allowing them to ride bikes, we still have to contend with the fact that cities are the engines that are destroying the earth. Global warming is a threat to the fate of humanity right up there with the threat of nuclear war. Buses is not going to get us there. All the buses in the world won’t help. We have to allow people to get around under their own power.

    BRT just strengthens and entrenches motorization anywhere it is implemented. We don’t need to strengthen and entrench motorization, obviously — we need to allow people to get around without consuming huge amounts of energy. Walk and biking. Everything else is window dressing at best. I believe BRT is actually a lot worse than ‘just’ window dressing.

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